Mentally Ill People in Solitary Confinement: We Need To Get Them Out

Dave Mahoney is the chief law enforcement officers in Dane County, Wisconsin. He wrote a piece for The Hill about the two schizophrenic prisoners locked up in Madison. As he writes, “The cells are 6 x 9, with concrete-block walls, a metal toilet and a steel door with a slot. The inmates are sick, and they are scared. They should not be in jail in the first place. They certainly should not be in solitary confinement. Frankly, dogs at the Humane Society are treated better than these two poor souls, both of whom were arrested for minor crimes.”

He goes on to ask elected officials to act to make sure mentally ill people get the help they need and avoid imprisonment. He says in his system there are a total of 1,013 beds available for inmates. He estimates that 48 percent of the people in those beds have some form of chronic mental illness, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

He explains the incarceration decision in economic terms. “The two men in there now have been there for three days. It cost the county $1,000 a day to keep someone in a mental health facility. It cost $120 a day to keep them in jail. Guess which option the politicians prefer?”

He brings up the issue of medication for inmates. “We’re fortunate in our county that we have the budget to offer some of our mentally ill inmates strong and often effective medications. Other counties, other jails and other inmates are not so lucky. These medications are not cheap, and when a person is arrested and placed in a jail, Medicaid stops paying for their medicine. Our elected officials need to act to change that. Congress can start by re-examining the Medicaid rules and how they apply to incarceration. They can make progress by taking another look at a pilot program, which the nation’s sheriffs have been pushing for since 2010, that would continue Medicaid benefits for inmates that would allow them to seamlessly continue to receive psychiatric aftercare and psychotropic medications after they are released.”

Then he closes his essay in a most elegant way.

“The two people in solitary confinement will eventually get out. They will be released, and in most cases, a person in their situation will be given about three days worth of medication. After those three days, this tragic cycle usually starts again. And that’s when we’re lucky. America’s jails were never meant to be asylums. Our sheriffs and law enforcement professionals were never meant to be doctors. Stories like this don’t come with happy endings. They end with politicians offering their thoughts and prayers. Instead, we need solutions.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing